Joy of Life – Book versus Drama

Oh, the challenges that faced the script writer when first adapting Mao Ni’s novel, “Thankful for the Remaining Years,” better known by drama viewers as Joy of Life. The source novel is 746 chapters long, dense, action-filled, character-driven, and complicated. The success, or should I say “triumph” in bringing part one to the small screen had me thirsting to know more, to know what would happen in Fan Xian’s world, which turned me to the novel while still half-way in my viewing of the drama. But I made myself a promise; I would not read further than the the adaptation covers until after I’d finished watching it (and yes, I kept that promise.) However, as the script writer is in the process now of adapting what will be the next part of Joy of Life, with plans to go into filming at the end of 2020 if all goes to plan, meaning we’ll likely not see the finished product until late 2021 or even 2022, I’d like to talk about the drama versus the novel, and maybe yes, where the next part will take us as viewers. If you’ve not watched the series I can only ask, “What are you waiting for?” And know that there will be spoilers if you plan to read further, as well as speculations.

In Chinese dramaland today there is a constant need to balance the desire to be truthful to the source with what the official broadcast censors will permit, and we see minor influences of the latter to the former from the start of the drama. It is clear from the start that “this” is a “work of fiction” because we see a contemporary Fan Shen (modern-day Zhang Ruoyun) explaining his latest fiction-writing project to his professor. Folks, this is not a real China, real Emperor, real-world time-traveling or anything like that. It is Fiction with a capital “F.” This is because there have been, at various times, crackdowns on playing fast-and-loose with history, and crazy notions like time-travel, etc. But let’s not let that get in our way.


One thing that leapt out at me when watching the drama was how exceptionally well-cast it was, with a terrific mix of young and veteran actors sharing the screen as equals. There is no denying the chemistry between Zhang Ruoyun as Fan Xian and Chen Daoming as the Emperor; their scenes together sizzle and pop with intrigue and tension. And yet, by the point at which part one concludes, the pair have had almost no interaction, certainly not the number of intimate conversations in the Emperor’s private library, and most definitely not a “family dinner” set forth for the Crown Prince, Second Prince, and Fan Xian, spelling out their blood connections. Yes, Fan Xian has made his impression on the Emperor, and there is an awareness that is danced around in veiled conversations by Fan Xian that he has learned that the Emperor is his birth father, but this is still not delved into deeply as a plot point.

One of the most significant moments in which Fan Xian is in the presence of the Emperor is the famous “300 Poems” scene; but at this point he has yet to officially meet the Emperor. Bringing forth their encounters into part one not only has introduced us to a major character in the novel much sooner, but has given us the chance to enjoy not only the Fan Xian and Emperor scenes, but more scenes with those in the Emperor’s orbit — most significantly Chen Pingping (Wu Gang).

Chen Pingping

Chen Pingping is introduced, albeit briefly, in the introductions of both the novel and the drama, as the former Fan Shen’s cognition or soul (choose your own description) is reborn into the infant Fan Xian as Wuzhu (Tong Mengshi) is spiriting him away from the death and destruction at Taiping Court, where Fan Xian’s mother is assassinated. He directs Wuzhu to take the infant to Danzhou, to be cared for by his “father’s mother.” This is a significant detail not clear in the drama, but Fan Xian’s ‘grandmother’ is the biological mother of Fan Jian (Gao Shuguang), but she is the royal wet-nurse or ‘mother’ to the Emperor. This clue to Fan Xian’s identity is described within the portions of the novel covering part one, but more in describing the close relationship and trust between Fan Jian and the Emperor. But as to Chen Pingping, his character too is introduced sooner into the adaptation than in the novel, with the result being more time exploring his character’s relationship with the Emperor, Fan Jian, and, of course, Fan Xian. He does not introduce Fan Xian and his intention to have Fan Xian take a prominent role in the Overwatch Council until the latter stage of the part one content.

Many parts of the story and the way the characters portray them are very close to what we see in the drama, especially the early portions with young Fan Xian, his life in Danzhou, his character, how he faces dangers, and how he’s trained by Wuzhu. But there are a few bits and pieces that have fallen under the axe, perhaps in the interests of time and good editing, perhaps in the name of mild censorship. Young Fan Xian is, after all, the sentient Fan Shen with an adult’s sensibilities even if he has a child’s body, and in the novel young Fan Xian enjoys cuddling with his maidservants (even if he is too young to do anything about it). Poor Fan Shen of the novel dies a virgin, bedridden and unable to control his muscles, but with brain alert, and those memories do follow into this new healthy, albeit young vessel! One of those maidservants, Sisi, helped him transcribe his famous novel (because Fan Xian has terrible calligraphy), and later joins his household in the city and, with Wan’er’s blessing, becomes a concubine. As she’s not present in the drama, my guess is that she’s not going to appear in the later stages, keeping Fax Xian’s heart alone for Lin Wan’er (Li Qin).

Another character not to make it into the story is the father of Li Hongcheng (Liu Runnan), the brother of the Emperor and the “King of Jing.” Much like the character of Prince Jing in “Nirvana in Fire,” this royal brother keeps out of court business in the novel, preferring to tend to his gardens, but in the novel he is an important ally in the future to Fan Xian, so his exclusion is probably a cost constraint. Li Hongcheng is fairly consistently portrayed in the drama and the novel and his character is important as the story progresses, so I’m glad to see that his role is paralleled so closely.

On the other hand, Guo Baokun (Jia Jingui), the annoying guy who tries to bring down Fan Xian and later becomes his begrudging ally in the Northern Qi empire, gets his role amplified. He is not part of the sequence in the Northern Qi empire rescue of Yan Bingyun, nor is he left behind to help in the spying/money-laundering trade project Fan Xian sets up, along with Ku He (the ninth brother of Haitang Duoduo (Xin Zhilei)). In the novel, Ku He does not ally himself with Fan Xian, and more importantly, it is Wang Qinian (Tian Yu) who remains behind in the Northern Qi empire. This is a fairly significant deviation from the novel because Wang Qinian is Fan Xian’s most trusted ally and sounding board, cunning and resourceful, but it is more important for him to be Fan Xian’s eyes and ears on the ground in the Northern Qi empire. He has a significant role to play later in the novel when he rejoins Fan Xian’s circle, but it would be fairly far off if the adaptation were more closely aligned with the novel. It might not even happen until a “part three.” This could only happen because of another major plot deviation from the source: the death of Teng Zijing (Wang Yang) does not happen in the novel. By killing off Teng Zijing the script writer has lit the fire of justice in Fan Xian’s heart by making him more a champion of the people, more so than he is in the novel.

Of course, living Teng Zijing means that there’s no orphaned son to be held hostage by the Second Prince, along with Fan Sizhe (Guo Qilin). So who is the boy that should be held hostage by the manipulative Second Prince? This is an area where there is likely to be a major edit because in the novel, that is another of Fan Xian’s half-brothers, the Third Prince. The plot point behind the situation is, however, fairly unsavory, considering that the Third Prince is, at that moment, just 8 years old. His role in the scenario can only be considered as distasteful at best, so I’m guessing that this will be heavily censored in the adaptation. The Third Prince is, however, crucial to the plot as it moves forward, so I’m assuming that his role will be introduced differently. But back to Wang Qinian: with Guo Baokun having to hold down the fort back in Northern Qi, that leaves Wang Qinian to remain close to Fan Xian.

The ladies in the drama get a little bit more juiciness to their stories than in the novel (it is, after all, primarily a male-lead-centered story), but with few exceptions the plots follow along very closely to what is told in the novel and what we see onscreen. Some of the better enhancements include the scenes between Fan Xian and Lin Wan’er, particularly the scene outside the gates after her mother Li Yunrui (Li Xiaoran) is exiled. It’s worth noting that with the jiggled timeline between book and drama that in the book Fan Xian and Wan’er are already engaged (the next best thing to being married) before he leaves for Northern Qi, and there are things that occur whilst in Northern Qi that will be revealed (or should be revealed… maybe…) in part two (or three) that make it preferable that Fan Xian is actually not married yet in the drama. (Just saying.)

Also, slide side note: there is the tiniest hint of non-brotherly longing for Fan Ruoruo (Song Yi) on the part of Fan Xian in the novel (she is, after all, not his real sister by blood and he sees her as Fan Shen might), but nothing too much more than a semi-puerile “hey, what if…” kind of thing. Mostly he treats her as an equal and it’s gratifying to see. There’s a moment in the series that was a puzzlement, when at Taiping Court she briefly meets Wuzhu but we don’t know what happens. That’s key, but they are really toying with us, the viewers here. I’m looking forward to seeing her character as it should be portrayed, even if it’s not as long as I’d like. Haitang Duoduo, the Northern Emperor Zhan Duoduo, (Liu Meitong), and Si Lili (Li Chun), are at this point in the novel and the drama also consistent. I think that Haitang Duoduo is particularly well-cast based on the way her character is described.

When it comes to the world of the Overwatch Council, the characters are consistent, but the timelines are again not. Zhu Ge (Hai Yitian) as the first bureau head is still a loyalist/traitor allied with Princess Li Yunrui, but his actions occur slightly later in the telling (but still pretty much within part one). Yan Ruohai (Li Qiang) is the head of the fourth bureau at the start of the story and moves over to the first, and is pretty much the same type of old guard council member as portrayed, however he is NOT Yan Bingyun’s adoptive father, he is his true birth father in the novel. But, Yan Bingyun is Mr. “Toe the Line” as portrayed. He is not Xiao En’s biological son, nor the almost “Manchurian Candidate” like deep cover rigid soldier described in the drama.

Xiao Zhan as Yan Bingyun

I’m not sure what kind of hole they’ve dug for the character after the cliffhanger at the end of part one because in the novel, while Yan Bingyun is still very much one who does not like doing anything that goes against regulations, he is an important strategist for Fan Xian throughout much of the balance of the novel. At the time he was contracted for the role, Xiao Zhan was not yet the bright star he became after “The Untamed” aired; based on a comment he made in an BTS during “The Untamed” in which he apologized teasingly to Wang Yibo for not being on set because he was doing scenes for “Joy of Life” he said that he was promised to do it a long time ago. One can infer that he was contracted before “The Untamed” even, and they accommodated his filming schedule for the two shows. He has much higher visibility now, so the question remains whether he would have been intended all along to be in part two and there is some clever explanation for his character’s actions, or if they had planned all along to proceed without the character of Yan Bingyun, perhaps by giving his actions to Wang Qinian as he’s not in the Northern Qi territory. As a side note: Xiao Zhan’s manager is Chen Daoming’s son-in-law, so I’m hoping that this relationship means that we’ll see more of Xiao Zhan in part two – a lot more? Time (and lots of it) will tell.

This has been a fairly long exposition, but I want to touch base on one area of major deviation from the story and that is the casting of Zhang Ruoyun as Fan Xing (and his ‘siblings’ as a result). I’ll begin by saying that he’s made this role totally his own and done it with great panache. It’s a terrific performance. Honestly, only the most die-hard fans of the novels could find fault with it, but… you could say that he’s wrong for the part of Fan Xian if you’re a purist! The main action of the story, taking place after he goes to the capital, begins when he is only 16 years old. He is described as being a youth so fair and beautiful that most women cannot compare. In other words, his features and build are more pretty, even delicate, in the novel and that is not how one would describe Zhang Ruoyun (who is over 30, btw). I appreciate Zhang Ruoyun’s looks, but pretty and delicate he is not. But I make no complaints. He definitely is boyish, even if his Fan Xian is (blessedly) not underage. In fact, from start to finish in the novel Zhang Ryoyun would be too old to play Fan Xian! Fan Sizhe is 12, Fan Ruoruo is 15, as is Lin Wan’er at their first meeting. So, I’m glad they bumped up the ages just that wee bit, aren’t you?

There’s a lot more still that could be said in comparing the novel to the drama, but I’ll leave that for now. If you’d like to comment, please preface your remarks with a spoiler notification if your discuss plot points. And if you would like to read the novel, here’s a great source:

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